Reagan’s Powerful Legacy Is Being Squandered

September 15, 2018 Topic: Politics Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Skeptics Tags: Ronald ReaganRepublicansPolicyPoliticsDonald Trump

Reagan’s Powerful Legacy Is Being Squandered

America must return to the ideas and concepts espoused and implemented by Ronald Reagan.

U.S. Special Representative for Syria James Jeffrey confirmed that U.S. troops will not be leaving Syria this year, while laying out rationale that ensures they never will. With this latest in a growing series of permanent military operations around the world, the Trump administration has finished what the previous four administrations started: the destruction of Ronald Regan’s legacy.

Jeffrey told the Washington Post that the U.S. mission for the troops in Syria had changed from their original charge (to help the Syrian Democratic Forces route ISIS from their one-time “capitol” of Raqqa) to two new objectives: “the exit of all Iranian military and proxy forces from Syria, and establishment of a stable, nonthreatening government acceptable to all Syrians and the international community.”

Short of an all-out regime-change war against both Iran and Syria, neither of those objectives can be accomplished—and thus, the troops will never leave. This announcement joins the president’s previous walk-back on ever withdrawing troops from Afghanistan—along with the other military operations without end currently being conducted in Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Niger, scores of other locations in Africa, (including Somalia where U.S. military personnel have been fighting on-and-off, without resolution or end, since 1992).

These active combat missions are in addition to the growing military assertiveness we demonstrate on a routine basis against Russia, China, North Korea, and with increasing fervency, Iran. Whatever one may believe or wish were true, the result of this military-dominant foreign policy has unequivocally seen the deterioration—not the improvement—of the risk we face from terrorist strikes. More importantly, it raises—not diminishes—the threat of major war.

While Reagan was certainly an advocate for a strong military with a global impact, his skillful use of the lethal instrument resulted in a safer America and a more peaceful world. As we near the thirty-eighth anniversary of Reagan’s famous “City on a Hill” speech, today’s Republican policymakers would do well to revisit the fundamentals that undergirded the strength and security he produced for our country.

On November 3, 1980, just hours before the presidential election, Reagan laid out his vision for America and explained how he’d keep the nation safe, prosperous, and strong. A desire to build a powerful military formed the backbone of his plan, but it wasn’t the primary means he proposed.

By far his most passionate remarks centered on the centrality of the people of our country, limited government, and a foreign policy that prioritized leading by example as opposed to relying on raw military power and threats.

During his speech, Reagan quoted one of America’s first settlers, John Winthrop, saying what was true of those early Americans would be true in his administration in 1980. “We shall be a city upon a hill,” Reagan said. “The eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword through the world."

Describing how he would translate Winthrop’s philosophy into policy, Reagan reassured the American people and citizens around the world by saying, “Let it always be clear that we have no dreams of empire, that we seek no manifest destiny, that we understand the limitations of any one nation's power.”


To America’s allies “great and small,” he said, “at last the sleeping giant stirs and is filled with resolve—a resolve that we will win together our struggle for world peace—our struggle for the human spirit.” Instead of antagonizing and provoking our potential enemies, Reagan offered the hope of cooperation.

“To the people of China,” he began, “with whom we have begun the first important steps to friendship—let it be known to them that we mean for that friendship to bring our peoples closer together. To the people of Russia—if only we could speak to them without their government intervening, they would know our willingness to build an enduring peace.”


On the occasion of his passing in 2004, former Reagan aide Doug Bandow wrote that throughout Reagan’s eight years, the fortieth president “was pushing not domination through American military power but peace through international cooperation. In 1988, Reagan spoke eloquently about peace as well as freedom in a speech to students at Moscow State University.” Though Reagan is well known as the president that rebuilt the military and believed in “peace through strength,” he was characterized by the judicious and infrequent use of lethal military power.

During his entire eight years in office, Bandow said Reagan only used the military three times in combat: Grenada, Libya, and Lebanon. In all three cases, after the initial mission was completed—or ended badly as the case in Lebanon—he brought the troops home.

“He neither staged an invasion nor engaged in nation-building,” in any of the deployments, Bandow noted. Instead, he said Reagan, “always saw America as a shining city on a hill, an international force for good that could best convince others to seek freedom rather than force a particular form of democratic governance upon them.”

America under Reagan enjoyed a strong economy, stable relations with our allies and competitors abroad, and our national security was as secure as any period of our history. Today, by contrast, after unparalleled and expansive use of military power since 9/11, our military is worn out from constant use, the terror threat is dramatically higher, and the risk of major wars is greater than any time since the Cold War.

Before we stumble into a war we should never have to fight—and risk exposing an inadequately ready conventional force—we must return to the ideas and concepts espoused and implemented to such success by Ronald Reagan. The greatest power America possesses remains our people, and not our instruments of war, and the best way to ensure our security is by power of living out an example that others desire to emulate. We continue to reject Reagan’s ways to our peril.

Daniel L. Davis is a senior fellow for Defense Priorities and a former lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after twenty-one years, including four combat deployments. Follow him @DanielLDavis1.

Image: U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev shake hands after their mini-summit meeting in Reykjavik October 12, 1986. REUTERS/Denis Paquin/File Photo